This case is based on Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, concerning the placement and upkeep of a cross on government property, which was argued before the Supreme Court on February 27, 2019. This case was combined with the case The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, which was heard on the same day.
FACTS: The cross at issue was erected in Bladensburg, Maryland, to honor 49 soldiers from Prince George’s County, Maryland, killed during World War I. In 1922, the local American Legion post took over responsibility for the project after the private organizers ran out of money; the fundraising drive included a Christian prayer for the invocation. When the 40-foot-tall cross was finished in 1925, the dedication ceremony featured only Christian prayers, with no other religions represented. In 1961, the state government acquired the cross and the land it sits on, due at least in part to concerns about safety as traffic around the cross increased. The cross is part of a larger park honoring veterans that also contains much smaller memorials remembering the War of 1812, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the September 11 attacks. The symbol of the American Legion – a small star inscribed with “U.S.” – appears at the top of the cross, while a plaque at the bottom contains the names of the fallen soldiers and a quote from President Woodrow Wilson.
ISSUE: Whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment requires the removal or destruction of a 93-year-old memorial to American servicemen who died in World War I solely because the memorial bears the shape of a cross.
Legal Principles at Issue: For decades the U.S. Supreme Court has struggled to determine what the proper relationship between church and state should be. Their decisions have ranged from requiring a strict separation to allowing the government to accommodate religion. Since 1972, the Court has somewhat consistently and controversially used the so-called Lemon Test whereby government interaction with religion that either has a religious purpose or has the effect of advancing religion is deemed unconstitutional. Advocates for a closer relationship between church and state have been urging the abandonment of this test since it was created.
- UMKC’s Exploring Constitutional Conflcits page entitled Religious Symbols in Public Places
- PRO: American Center for Law and Justice guidance on how to display religious symbols on public property.
- CON: The Freedom From Religion Foundation is one of the driving forces behind legal challenges to religious displays on government property. Its view on this provides a counter-argument.
- Oral argument before the Supreme Court (The Oyez Project)
- Lynch v. Donnelly – the U.S. Supreme Court allows a display in honor of the Christmas Season in government property in Rhode Island
- County of Allegheny v. ACLU – two religious holiday displays were at issue in this case. The Court ultimately allowed one display to remain and ordered the county to remove the other display.
- Van Orden v. Perry – this is the case being argued by Group 1. The case involved a display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. 4 Justices ruled against the display using the Endorsement Test and 4 Justices ruled in favor of it using something akin to the Coercion Test. The decision here is written by Justice Breyer, who was the deciding vote. He also applied the Endorsement Test but came to a different conclusion as the other four Justices who applied it.
- Petitioner’s Brief (Park and Planning Commission)
- Petitioner’s Brief (American Legion – Note that the American Legion joined the case as “intervenors )
- Respondent’s Brief
- Court Opinions (NOTE – all the opinions are found on this page. Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion but much of his decision was only signed onto by four Justices. Thus, these parts are NOT binding precedent. The dissenting opinions are also contained in this document)